I’ve read the first book in this trilogy (Some Luck) two or three times and really enjoy its structure and descriptions of farm and internal life. I therefore read this second book with interest, but I don’t think it was as good as the first one and I don’t think I would reread it. I’m still going to read the third one because these are transporting and feel like you’re watching a soap opera, so it’s good train commute reading. Not bad enough to stop reading, not good enough to whole-heartedly recommend, basically. Spoilers follow throughout my review!
I felt like the motivations and traits of the characters in Some Luck felt realistic, but the same people in Early Warning behave bizarrely and I found myself perplexed by their motivations. I think that since the first book mainly took place on the farm, Smiley was able to focus on the internal lives of her characters in a way that fleshed them out and left her room to explore the small details that make her writing so deep and lyrical. In comparison, Early Warning suffers from being overstuffed with characters, locations, and events. The narrative is trying to balance ever-increasing numbers of characters while shoe horning in major world events in an attempt to make the book feel connected to a time period. I also felt like making Henry gay was mainly an excuse to have a character who could have a reaction to AIDS. He, like Frank and Richie and Michael and Andy, is weirdly cut off from everyone around him and has trouble forming human connections. The lack of warmth and human relations became more and more glaring in this book and I was having a hard time connecting to most of the characters because they were so weird and removed. Frank, who was the most interesting person in the last book, continues his oddly glossed over non-jobs and becomes cut off from everyone around him. I have trouble even understanding his relationships, and the same holds true for most of the people in the book. Arthur and Lillian are basically the only characters in this book I would actually want to meet.
Also, I did not appreciate the shoe-horning of the People’s Temple in here to make you scared that Janet would be killed. I don’t like the use of an awful tragedy/mass murder for narrational purposes. It felt tacky to me and then it felt manipulative to have none of the people who Smiley invented in the book die — almost like she realized it would be messed up to do so because it would trivialize the actual deaths, but she still wanted that emotional frisson of the near-death of her characters. It felt gross to me.
I guess it’s partially because I liked the first book so much that I was disappointed in this one. It’s not bad, it’s readable, but it suffers from second book syndrome in that it’s too long and sprawling, and Smiley seems to have lost control of her characters and written a bunch of high-functioning sociopaths or androids or something. I will read the third book when it arrives and will see how it compares.